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Berkley begins voyage for jobs

U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley on Tuesday launched a "focus on jobs" tour across Nevada by lobbing critical bombs at U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, her opponent in the 2012 Senate race.

Berkley, D-Nev., said she’s moving to ease Nevada’s record joblessness by promoting renewable energy and transmission lines and by backing loan guarantees for such projects and incentives for businesses to create jobs in the state instead of sending them overseas.

She accused Heller, R-Nev., of being focused not on jobs but on "ending Medicare" and protecting big oil companies and corporate tax breaks. It’s a charge Democrats across the country are making against Republicans as the campaign season gets under way with Congress bitterly divided.

"Job creation must be our top priority in this nation, making our economy strong again," Berkley said at a news conference inside a North Las Vegas grocery store, Jimmy’s Cheyenne Market. "Job creation is my top priority. My opponent has his priorities upside down."

Berkley noted that Heller voted three times for a budget plan by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that proposed a voucherlike Medicare program for future retirees that supporters said would keep the health insurance program from going bankrupt after several decades.

Two votes came when Heller was in the House. The third came in the Senate after he was appointed to complete disgraced U.S. Sen. John Ensign’s term.

Democrats say Ryan’s plan would end Medicare, but fact-check groups say the claim is misleading because little would change for current recipients or those nearest retirement.

Seniors would have paid more for prescription drugs if the plan had passed: $15 million out of pocket for Nevadans in 2012 and $229 million through 2020, said Zach Hudson, spokesman for the state Democratic Party.

"I’m trying to get our country back to work," Berkley said. "My opponent was more interested in pulling the rug out from under those seniors that need Medicare and Social Security. I’m trying to get our country back to work, and he votes not once, not twice, but three times to end Medicare, to privatize it and leave the health care needs of our seniors in the hands of insurance companies."

Heller’s office and his campaign fired back in the face of Berkley’s attack. His spokesmen said the $787 billion stimulus package Berkley backed to support President Barack Obama failed to create the 34,000 jobs promised for Nevada. Instead, the state lost about 60,000 jobs, and unemployment remains highest in the nation at more than 12 percent, two points lower than its peak earlier this year.

"Senator Heller has been fighting against the president’s health care law that is crippling businesses, working for tax reform that closes special-interest loopholes, a balanced budget amendment to get government spending under control, and reining in excessive job-killing regulations," Stewart Bybee, the communications director for Heller, said.

Bybee said that on Tuesday, Heller participated in a bipartisan summit with California Gov. Jerry Brown, Gov. Brian Sandoval, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other officials to discuss "issues critical to Lake Tahoe to keep it a major tourist destination and an economic driver for Nevada."

"Senator Heller has and will continue to speak with job creators and workers in both Reno and Las Vegas about their experiences in the current economic environment," Bybee said.

Mike Slanker, a Heller campaign consultant, said Berkley wants voters to forget her record.

"I find it amazing that a person who claimed the stimulus she fought for would create millions of jobs is now out pointing fingers at others," Slanker said. "Might call her tour the ‘Hear me now, please don’t look at what I did back then’ tour. "

The market where Berkley had her news conference has struggled as the recession hit people in the mixed, working-class neighborhood with home foreclosures and layoffs.

Store owner Jimmy Banks said he now has 20 employees, mostly part time, compared with a peak workforce of 40. He also cut back on hours the store is open, now 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. most days. He has been in the grocery business with his family for 30 years, more than five at the current location.

"You can say we’re on life support," Banks said in an interview from his office after Berkley left.

Banks added, however, that he senses signs of recovery, and he seemed determined to make Jimmy’s Cheyenne a success after starting his business without government help or bank loans.

He said he backs Berkley for Senate: "We feel she is a leader who’s moving in the right direction. I voted for her before, and I’ll vote for her again."

After the news conference, Berkley talked up her jobs swing, which continues today and Thursday in Las Vegas with stops to see veterans and unemployed workers. Next week, she plans to travel to Northern Nevada, where she is less known, with stops in Reno and Carson City.

She also said she would back another extension of unemployment benefits when Congress returns. She said people who are out of a job "through no fault of their own" shouldn’t be abandoned.

Berkley refused to say how she would strengthen Medicare to ensure its health for future generations. She said she has many ideas and noted that her husband is a doctor, so she understands health care.

"I’d really love to concentrate on jobs, because this is a jobs tour, and I think it’s important to discuss that because that’s the No. 1 issue," Berkley said, as she spoke with reporters who asked about her Medicare views. "Can we save that for another time, and I will wax poetic on all of the things I think we could do not only to improve our health care system but to keep Medicare strong."

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow @lmyerslvrj on Twitter.

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